Extreme ignorance
26 Jun 2007

While British newspapers were harrumphing about the Australian government banning Aboriginals from accessing pornography, they signally failed to notice that one of the 19 new offences announced in New Labour’s 54th criminal justice bill since it came to power will be the possession of what it calls ‘extreme pornographic images’. Those found guilty risk three years in gaol, or a hefty fine, or both. They will also be put on the Sex Offenders Register, and thus have their lives wrecked.

Anybody who vainly hoped that this measure, which has been looming for the past three years, would slink away and find a quiet place to die in the face of a campaign of sustained and well-informed opposition will be sorely disappointed. (For an account of this campaign see here and here) Indeed, quite the reverse is the case. The measures unveiled in the Criminal Justice Bill are actually even more draconian and ill-conceived than the original proposals. These can only be regarded as a direct smack in the faces of those who had the temerity to object in the first place, and a clear warning that the government intends to intimidate and criminalise not only the entire BDSM (Bondage-Domination-Sadism-Masochism) community but very considerable portions of the DVD/video-owning and website-visiting communities as well.

The bill defines an ‘extreme pornographic image’ as one which both ‘appears to have been produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal’ (duh!) and ‘which is an image of any of the following –

(a) an act which threatens or appears to threaten a person’s life,

(b) an act which results in or appears to result in (or be likely to result in) serious injury to a person’s anus, breast or genitals,

(c) an act which involves or appears to involve sexual interference with a human corpse,

(d) a person performing or appearing to perform an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal,

where (in each case) any such act, person or animal depicted in the image is or appears to be real’.

Now, you don’t have to be a media studies graduate to realise immediately that the key word here is, of course, ‘appears’. This, unequivocally and indubitably, brings within the bill’s ambit both images of consenting BDSM activity and films not classified by the British Board of Film Classification which involve, and not necessarily simultaneously, scenes of unsimulated sexual activity and scenes of simulated violence, necrophilia or bestiality. Thus, for example, collectors of the work of Jess Franco, Joe d’Amato and other Euro sleaze-meisters, all of whose works are readily available from that sink of pornographic depravity,, could soon find themselves locked up for a considerable period of time. This is a crucial point – the government, abetted by sections of the media is currently engaged on a campaign of disinformation aimed at persuading people that this measure should concern only those possessing a very limited range of pornographic images. The truth is very different indeed.

Furthermore, it needs to be stressed that although works classified by the BBFC are exempt from the new prohibition, extracts from BBFC-classified films (even single images) come within its ambit ‘if it appears that the image was extracted (whether with or without other images) solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal’. Desiccated and deathly the prose may be, but yes, you read this right: if you put together a montage of favourite moments from BBFC-certificated films, and if these contain representations of sex and violence, you may well end up having your motives probed in court and, if they don’t pass muster, you’ll be sent to prison.

In terms of BDSM images, the bill is quite clearly yet another malign consequence of the Spanner case ( As a result of this truly shocking affair, people taking part in entirely consensual sado-masochistic activity have had to come to terms with the fact that their consent is not in fact valid at law, a point which the notes attached to this bill is at pains to rub in, stating that ‘the material to be covered by this new offence is at the most extreme end of the spectrum of pornographic material which is likely to be thought abhorrent by most people. It is not possible at law to give consent to the type of activity covered by the offence, so it is therefore likely that a criminal offence is being committed where the activity which appears to be taking place is actually taking place’. And in the case of purely staged activities, ‘the Government believes that banning possession is justified in order to meet the legitimate aim of protecting the individuals involved from participating in degrading activities’. Thus is revealed the mark of the true authoritarian: promoting oppressive legislation on the grounds of protecting people from themselves.

‘Degrading’, ‘abhorrent’ – this is the over-heated language of the moral crusader, not the dispassionate prose of the legislator. But frightening people into behaving ‘properly’ and appeasing the moral authoritarians has always been at the root of this measure. Indeed, the accompanying notes are remarkably upfront about this, stating that ‘the Government considers that the new offence is a proportionate measure with the legitimate aim of breaking the demand and supply cycle of this material which may be harmful to those who view it. Irrespective of how these images were made, banning their possession can be justified as sending a signal that such behaviour is not considered acceptable. Viewing such images voluntarily can desensitise the viewer to such degrading acts, and can reinforce the message that such behaviour is unacceptable’.

However, the vainglorious idea that this measure will break the ‘demand and supply cycle of this material’ shows that the government knows absolutely nothing about the Internet, and still less about the global pornography market. Even if the entire UK population could be completely and instantaneously cut off from the entire supply of Internet porn, it would register barely a blip in the global economics of the industry. To seriously believe that international porn barons give a damn about what the British government does or doesn’t do betrays a quite stupefyingly over-inflated sense of this country’s importance in the scheme of things. Furthermore, the ‘message’ which this measure sends out is not the one which is so portentously intended. Rather, it says that, for all its eulogising of modernisation, New Labour is actually profoundly ignorant of and ill at ease with the modern media, and, as far as attitudes to the Internet are concerned, is quite happy to place itself in the same camp as not simply Australia, but also Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea.

Julian Petley is Professor of Film and Television at Brunel University and a member of the board of Index. His latest work, Censoring the Word, is about to be published by Seagull Books

7 responses to “Extreme ignorance”

  1. mark says:

    Corneilius: Graham Coutts is a murderer. I’m not sure at all how you jump from a murder case, to saying that images of fictional violence should be illegal to possess. There is no evidence that violent porn causes people to become murderers, anymore than there is evidence that porn in general causes people to rape, or violent films or video games cause people to be violent – shall we criminalise possession of all of these?

    “industry that is built on violence and degradation of women” – what are you on about? This law covers private images which do not come from an “industry”. It covers images from classified works. The more “extreme” stuff out there is simluated anyway, and therefore not built on violence or degradation. The milder material like BDSM takes place between consenting adults, and it is entirely your opinion that it is degrading. Some people find oral sex degrading, but the mature response would be to not look at such images, not to wage a campaign criminalising them!

    “against the rights of women to live without fear of these sick individuals” And how exactly are rights of women being infringed? Contrary to the myths people like to spread, people are not forced to take part in such images (and the claims that they are would apply to all pornography, and all violent films).

    Let’s face it – you mean rights of prudes who want to live in a world where people who engage in private consensual acts they disapprove of don’t exist. The only sick people are those who want dictate other people’s private life and sexuality, and have a fetish for putting people in prison, and I find it rather sad that such people use the cover of “rights of women”, or a tragic murder case, as support for their agenda.

    Auschwitz – last time I looked, it hadn’t been populated with consenting adults. I’m not sure what’s sadder, that you compare consenting adults performing acts you disapprove of to the holocaust, or that you are sick enough to use the horrific ordeal that victims of the holocaust went through to push your pro-censorship agenda.

    Murderers do not “come out of BDSM”, anymore than murderers come out of the gay community, or anything else.

    This is what’s so sad about this law – a prudish minority are getting to dictate what consenting adults can do or look at, yet they hide behind the “OMG violence against women” banner, honestly believing that they are part of some moral high ground. It’s as ludicrous as criminalising sex, or images of sex, because rape is bad. Most people learn the difference between fiction and reality, and the importance of consent, early on. It shouldn’t be difficult.

  2. Les says:

    This bill infringes the rights of every person who wishes to take part in or view consensual material and it criminilises which for some is an everyday private act, why?  Because some puritans think they can dictate the law to all, we live in the 21st century and censorship should be being loosend not tightend.  Those people who find any ‘pornographic’ material offensive are lobbying parliament, whilst those with more open minds are left trying to defend their position when they shouldn’t have too.

    Adults should have the right to view or take part in any consensual act, for those that try to justify censorship on the grounds that viewing it may degrade or corrupt people should realise that if a person is viewing the material, it is their decision as an adult to do so.

  3. Mouthpiece says:

    The book “Pornography, men possessing women” by Andrea Dworkin contains verbatim reprints of textual porn, and bald descriptions of images which could be defined as “extreme” under Part 6. (More than 60% of the book is made up of these reprints and descriptions). Owning the source material Dworkin used would land you in jail for three years under the Bill, but owning her book would not.

    The Bill makes a criminal offence out of a state of mind. If the State assumes the power to do this in one sphere, it will rapidly do so in others.

    Anybody who values free thought and free conscience must oppose Part 6 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2007

    Please sign,

  4. Graham Marsden says:

    Cornelius’s polemic against Julian Petley’s article is based on several flawed premises.

    First he brings up the bogeyman of paedophila, yet fails to note that children cannot, de jure, consent to sexual acts.

    Then he mentions Graham Coutts, even though there was never *any* evidence presented in either of his trials that proved a link between the images he looked at and his actions (correlation does not equal *causation*!)

    He continues “I believe that, when weighing the rights of individuals who support an industry that is built on violence and degradation of women, against the rights of women to live without fear of these sick individuals, there is no argument.” but he fails to note that we *already* have laws to protect people against acts of violence, coercion and harm and that these proposals will not have any effect on such things, but will only serve to criminalise people for possession of images of consenting adults engaged in consensual activities if, in someone’s entirely *subjective* opinion, the image is “extreme” and “for sexual gratification”.

    Finally he brings up a completely non-sequitur argument comparing this material to Auschwitz, something that on any discussion forum would earn him an immediate Godwin award.

    Cornelius seems to be of the opinion that if *he* doesn’t like something then *we* shouldn’t be allowed to see it, just in case *we* do something nasty.

    Just like the Government, he does not trust anyone else but himself.

  5. John says:

    The door bursts open and the police storm in.

    “You! You have fictional literature on your shelf that has been declared ‘unacceptable’ by the state!”

    The home-owner is dragged out of his home and sent to jail.

    If this happened in China there would be an outcry. The criminal justice bill will make EXACTLY THIS happen in THIS COUNTRY.

    So why is there no outcry here?

  6. Mouthpiece says:

    Anyone who likes sex in the UK needs to be aware of Part 6 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2007, currently before Parliament.

    It criminalises sexual arousal as such. It will become an offence to own things intended to arosue sexually, but not things which are equally extreme, but intended to inform (TV news), sell (advertising), excite (video games), entertain (horror movies) or be worshipped (crucifix). A state of mind will be a criminal offence, a thought crime as described in ‘1984’.

    What is defined “extreme” could be changed by a future Parliament. If we want to retain freedom of *private sexual thought/feeling*, which harms no-one, the time to oppose is NOW. Write to your MP via

    see also

  7. Corneilius says:

    Julian Petley’s polemic against the new proposed censorship laws is based on a flawed premise.

    He argues that it is useless to legislate against sadism because it will have no impact due to the international nature of the Internet. Would he suggest that we scrap all the laws against Paedophilia for exactly the same reason? Just because some people believe themselves to be above the law is no reason to scrap the law. On the contrary the law should be implemented consistently, and if necessary strengthened to plug loopholes.

    This law was conceived because a sadist called Graham Coutts immersed himself in the sadistic lifestyle, and had a taste for strangling women. He enjoyed violent pornography downloaded from the Internet, and eventually killed his friends Girlfriend Jane Longhurst. He used the sadistic lifestyles catch all defence of ‘consent’, despite there not being one shred of evidence that Jane Longhurst was anything more than an unwilling victim. He kept her body in a storage site for several weeks, showing striking similarities to the most notorious killer to come out of BDSM, John Robertson (AKA Slavemaster). The judge in the trial, as well as police officers who investigated it, have no doubt that Coutts exposure to violent pornography was the catalyst for the murder.

    I believe that, when weighing the rights of individuals who support an industry that is built on violence and degradation of women, against the rights of women to live without fear of these sick individuals, there is no argument. Violent pornography should be illegal, and as far as I am concerned the rights of people who indulge in it are nothing to the rights of women to be free from fear of disturbed and dangerous sadists who have no regard for those they hurt.

    One Final point, Julian sites the cases of some ‘artists’ (non of whom I have ever heard of) claiming that censorship would infringe on their creative sensitivities. Really, so as long as it’s ‘artistic’ this somehow raises the subject out of its violent base ghetto. I sometimes wonder if Himmler had claimed Auschwitz an ‘art installation’ whether the likes of Julian would have been on the side lines defending him against censorship and applauding him for his use of innovative material to profoundly articulate the mortality of mankind.